The eyes of the Steward receded further into darkness, becoming as the moon gleam of limestone on a cliff side in the full night, dull and hard. His mouth twisted in hatred at the sound of the wizard's name, and his pale hands gripped the arms of his chair.
"You will not speak the name of that false prophet again! You are fortunate for the good that you have done me, but I will offer no reward but that you leave my presence safely. Gandalf? Gandalf! A common burglar! Do you count him as a friend?"
Poor Sam, frightened and shaking, let out a long, loose gap of wind, then moaned. "I'm sorry, sir. Please, I'm sorry. I won't say his name again. I barely know Gandalf. Oh! Scraps and pennies! I didn't mean it. Your pardon! Your pardon."
He bowed, shuffling backward.
"Seize him," Denethor said. "If the Grey Wanderer is so fond of Hobbits, perhaps for this one he will make a trade."
That wouldn't do, Sam could still be useful.
"What did he steal?" I asked, remaining unseen, but moving on silent feet around the pillars so that I would not be located by my voice.
The wardens who had been about to abduct Sam drew their swords at the suggestion of an intruder, but there was no one for them to menace.
Denethor rose, shoulders broadening, spine straight, without fear. "Show yourself, conjurer! I will not treat with ghosts who come sneaking into my hall."
"A wise condition," I said, appearing beside and behind his seat.
Denethor turned, and though he hid any alarm at my nearness he could not disguise his shock when he saw me. He held up a hand to stall his wardens, who had been about to charge the dais.
"You would be the new Lady of Orthanc then."
"I am." There was very little distance between us. "Now tell me what the wizard stole from you, good Steward."
"That is none of your concern," his will warred with mine a moment, then faltered. The command that I should remove myself from behind his seat fell voiceless from his lips, and he stepped back.
"So many rings..." his gaze drifted over my hands.
"It must have been something meaningful, for Mithrandir to bother stealing it, especially at the risk of offending Gondor. A relic, perhaps. Something to assist him in his war?"
"A relic? Yes." Denethor lost his danger, becoming an old man with too many burdens instead of a king who bore them willingly.
"What was it, Steward? What has the wizard stolen from you?"
My will bent upon him, and I perceived mine was not the only mind that had worked upon his, the paths of influence were already open for me.
"You have seen the Eye." I said.
He nodded, bending close to me as if to share a secret. "I have seen it, but I was the stronger. He does not command my sight."
"Then what do you see?"
"Whatever I wish, my sight stretches farther than any king's."
"He took your palantir."
When I spoke the word, his stupor lapsed, and he backed down the dais to the floor, pointing.
"She is a sorceress!" He exclaimed. "Defend your king!"
The wardens rushed me, swords drawn, and my annoyance flared. I raised my arms, ready to meet their blades with the Water Dance, but darkness poured from my hand and from my rings.
Two shapes, one a vast shadow on the tiles as if a Hell-Hawk swooped above, the other the dark mirror of a man, both moved to protect me. The Hawk wraith, for wraith it was, victim of Khamul's knife in my grip on the field of Alcarondas, spread out between me and the wardens. Their breath came out in white gasps, and their boots clomped to a halt.
The second shape was recognizable even for its umbral cast, the sharp nose and regal bearing were like that of the Steward himself, though belonging to a much younger man.
"Boromir?" Denethor lost all his strength, his legs could barely support him. "Is that you, my son?"
The wraith seized his throat, and frost spilled from its fingers as the Steward gasped and choked.
"No," I commanded, and Boromir's wraith released its father. Amras had killed the heir of Gondor with a Nazgul blade. So much had happened, the logical outcome had not occurred to me, being that I was now the bearer of Amras's ring. The wraiths had been hidden in my own shadow all the while, and I had felt nothing.
"Tell me what you know of the wizard's companions," I said. "What about the Ranger who travelled with him, and the Elf and the Hobbit, where did they go if they did not come into your city?"
Denethor was broken. Gingerly touching his throat, he answered me. "I don't know. The wizard took my sight from me so that I could not follow them. He said I was revealing too much to the Enemy, he did not believe that I had mastered the Eye.
I think he went to Rohan. He claimed he was needed there as their riders would be needed here, as if we would ever harbor their horses behind our walls."
Mithrandir was likely correct in taking the Palantir. That was exactly why I had abandoned the Stone of Orthanc, Sauron had seen all I saw with it. But what else was he doing in Rohan?
"What about the Ring? What were his plans?"
"You don't know?" Denethor laughed, but there was no pleasure in the sound. "The traitor wants to walk it into Mordor, into the hands of the Enemy. What will happen to you then, Lady of Many rings? Will these shades obey you when the One Ring rests upon the hand of the Dark Lord again?"
They would not.
"What about the Halfling? Did Frodo go with them to Rohan?"
"I don't know." Denethor raised a hand as if he meant to touch the wraith that had been his son, then let it fall. "I don't think it matters anymore, when a sorceress can walk freely in the Guardian Tower, and Sauron swells like a tic beyond our borders.
His armies make our own appear as mere hunting parties, for Men and Orcs are sworn to him wherever the sun touches, here as well as in the far lands of the East. I have seem them marching, and the dust of their feet would cloud the brightest day." He waved off the wardens.
"Let her go, and her little messenger with her. I want no more of this. I will not bear it."
Responding to my intent, the Hawk wraith disappeared into my own shadow, and Boromir shrank into Amras's ring.
"It's time to go, Sam, we have to find Frodo before he gets into trouble."
Then to the wardens, "No one will follow us out, or the shades will return."
They didn't seem inclined to disagree, so Sam and I were allowed to exit the citadel unmolested. He didn't speak. Outside, in the courtyard that displayed the dead tree, men and women alike froze and forgot us.
The cry of a Ring Wraith and his mount caught in their chests, eyes squeezed shut in terror, and hands that held bows were too weak to draw them. Maglor landed beside the bubbling fountain, and I boosted a protesting Sam behind him in the saddle before joining them.
The Hawk had difficulty with the extra weight, accustomed to carrying its master only, but I hummed a tune of war and its great wings found the strength to meet the sky again.
"Agh," Sam held his nose," the smell." But then we were off the ground and he had other things to worry about. An arrow went wide of us as we circled Ecthelion, rising on a column of hot air above cobbles baked by the sun. The day was so brilliant, the lesser wraiths would have shrivelled beneath its glare, but in the East there hung ponderous banks of malignant clouds.
(How would a Hobbit sneak into Mordor?)
The thought was meant for all the Riders, and I was quickly flooded with their responses. Most of them found the very idea of a Hobbit sneaking into Mordor so ridiculous that it was beyond consideration. The Black Gates were impregnable, as were the mountains that surrounded them.
A passage rose behind Minas Morgul, but when Kurkar explained the series of defenses he kept in place there I dismissed it as a possibility. Maglor mentioned Cirith Ungol, which had once been an outpost of Men but had long since fallen to the Shadow. He stationed himself there on occasion, and the Orcs were always complaining about a spider picking off their stragglers.
Shelob had settled her lair in a tunnel that bored through the mountain, a well intentioned passage that now served as a deadly lure to deserters. Maglor recalled deliberately sending Orcs into that dark shaft as a punishment, telling them that if they reached the western entrance they were free. None ever did.
Mirkwood was full of spiders. If Legolas still accompanied Frodo, he would not be deterred by lore of a bloated old arachnid in an abandoned cave.
We flew all day, and found our rest among the Mountains of Shadow. Our camp set, I sent Maglor to Rohan to see what he could learn of Mithrandir's plans for that region. Sam and I enjoyed a meal of lentils and herbs, there was nothing to forage in that place in that season, but we had provisions from Isengard.
Hard rock outcroppings gave us shelter against unwanted eyes, and I bid the Hawk wraith smother an owl I thought might have been spying on us. The carcass was stiff with cold, and I gave it to Sam to prepare. It seemed to help him to have something to do.
"Lady Arwen..." he began, "was that really Boromir, at the citadel?"
"Of course it was Boromir, we were returning a son to his father."
"I know...I mean the other one. The shadow."
That was a question I had no answer to, or none that I would wish to give. The Ring Wraiths were clearly a version of their original selves, bodiless and drained of much of who they had been, but an echo at the least.
They were walking souls, and though no one knew where Mortal souls went after they died, it was certain that wraiths weren't going there as they were meant to. I had no reason to believe that wasn't true of Boromir as well, though his shade was weaker and less well defined. Could it even speak? Could I free him if I tried?
When I had fought the wraiths of Hobbiton had I destroyed them utterly, or had that second death allowed them to return to their rightful course and judgement? I did not know, but the one I might ask was already descending toward us from the black night above.
Kurkar was silent as he landed, as was his hawk, who I tossed a section of owl. It snapped the bit of bird flesh out of the air and bobbed its beak at me, whether in recognition or challenge I could not guess. The Witch King had come to deliver me my spear. At his hip was a mace with a massive head spiked like a star, bulky even for an outsized Uruk-Hai.
"Tell me about the lesser wraiths," I said after receiving Aeglos. "Can they be released?"
"What happens to a shade after it has been used up has never concerned me." He said, watching our little fire and the Hobbit who shrank from his attention. "My brothers and I endure because we are tied to the rings, and the shades have no such ties to hold them. It is my thought that I have no afterlife awaiting me, only oblivion. The curse of necromancer's, I deem."
"But what if a wraith was not destroyed, but from his curse released? How might it be done?"
Kurkar scratched his jaw. "If my ring were destroyed, being what I am now, I do not know what the outcome would be. I feel more like myself every day, does that mean my soul is healing? No, I still believe that this is the only existence promised me. Why, do you wish to release your captive Hawk?"
"No. Boromir. Amras killed him with his dagger, and now I carry him on my hand."
"Boromir? The haughty one with the pretty hair?"
"Yes. He died fighting valiantly, he deserves rest."
"It doesn't matter how he died, there is no release."
That wasn't possible. Souls couldn't be lost so easily. "What if I break the dagger that killed him? What if I destroyed the ring?"
"That would be a betrayal of Amras," there wasn't any censure in his tone, it was matter of fact, "and it would fail. Those objects don't give the wraith his existence, they bind the wraith to a locus of control, you. Without them, Boromir would become a wandering ghost, but he wouldn't pass on, if that is what Mortals do."
"How can you be sure?"
He gestured to the fire, which flared twice, thrice, until it was a red gold pillar, and the black notes dancing therein revealed an ancient scene. I saw Kurkar, the real Kurkar, in an unknown land, giving sacrifices to an altar of sandstone seeped with blood. Dark shapes rose, faceless shades that bowed and scratched.
Images flurried, battles and armies and a kingdom in the north, some shades remained, and others faded, more had risen. And then the Elves came, glowing with a different light, and they smote the altar which he had carried for a thousand miles, and the shades that had fought ferociously for his empery lost their passion, sitting or shuffling or hunting small treasures that only they could see. He lost them, and his kingdom, but they were not gone.
The fire went out, and Sam whimpered. In the light starved gorge, only the edges of his eyes were visible.
"So there will be no peace for him," I said. "Or for anyone I kill with this blade?" I drew Khamul's curved throwing dagger, squeezed its hilt.
He shrugged. "Who can say for sure. Use what tools you have. Let that be a price paid by your enemies."
Hot anger rose out of my belly and blanketed my mind. I strode to one rock wall and struck the Nazgul blade against it with all my strength and all my will. It snapped, and the evil went out of the steel in a cold green flash, then I tossed the rest into the coals.
Sam, not understanding, watched me with alarm. Kurkar was impassive.
"Is there anything else I can do for you, my Queen?"
"Yes, tell me how to master Shelob."
"She will fear your spear, and little else. There are no words I can give you to bind her, because she and all her kind are claimed as kindred by a great power, and Sauron has no sway over her except brute force. But she is greedy and will bargain if you show yourself to be a threat. Shelob prefers her prey to be helpless."
"A great power?"
"Ungoliant." He said the work reluctantly, as if to speak the name would be to invoke the creature. I saw a brass figure worked in the shape of a spider bestriding a map of the South. Sauron's one terror.
"Maybe she is dead," I said. "If Frodo passed this way, either she killed him or Legolas slew her."
Kurkar bowed. "I will accompany you if you wish."
"No," I said, "I need you as Master of Morgul. Keep your men and monsters behind those walls."
"It may not be possible much longer." Kurkar admitted. "I am master there, but Sauron is master over me, unless you wish to ignite a war between those loyal to the Witch King and to the Eye."
I considered this. "Do what you can to consolidate power without open conflict, but if the choice is between invading Gondor and civil strife among the forces of Mordor, then choose strife."
"Strife there will be," Kurkar bowed once more, smiling, and returned to his Hell-Hawk. In moments, they were a black space against the black, and then nothing.
"I'm going on an adventure tomorrow, Sam," I said. "Would you like to come with me?"
"Will I get to see Frodo?"
"I think so, or at least we will be closer to him than we are tonight."
"Then alright. My Gamms always said, Samwise...don't be afraid of no ghosts."
It was as good advice as any. I built up the fire again, though my left hand burned at the slightest suggestion of heat, and I let him sleep. Sleep had become a near impossibility for me, so I put my back to the flames and meditated on the river of lights and fog available to my second sight.
Things were different here, the spirit of the earth was stained a dull foreboding red. In the rest of the world, as far as I had seen, the energy of the earth and sky all moved to the same gentle yet ineluctable rhythm, but in this place that rhythm had been subtly altered. Corrupted.
"I do not fear you," I said to no one, but at the very edge of my awareness there was a quaver of someone else's fear. Not Sam, but like Sam in a way. I let myself slip into invisibility, and followed this sense of the other.
Now that I knew there was something to look for, it was not hard to find. This creature left a faint, unpleasant warp in the lay of things. It had luminous eyes, and crouched behind a mound of loose rock with wide thin hands and a nearly toothless mouth held wide. Sickening to behold, waiting to pounce.
It made a soft, wet, choking noise deep in its throat.
Okay, so I'm just going to go into the whole thing.
I dropped out of high school, and a couple of years later I was in prison for robbing banks. It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I was diagnosed as bipolar and started seeking and participating in treatment and taking medication. After nearly 13 years in prison, I was granted a conditional pardon by the Governor of Virginia, and my sentence was reduced to time served.
While I was incarcerated, I was published by REED Magazine, CURA, and the Carolinian. My work appeared in several PEN Anthologies, and I was awarded seven different prizes in various categories by the PEN Prison Writing and Justice Program.
I'm currently working with Shadow Alley Press to publish my Gamelit novels, and I one day hope to be able to support myself through my writing. Until then, I work at Subway.